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Press Release – Pupils left puzzled by the term “British values”

The concept of “British values”, as promoted by the government in its anti-terrorism strategy, is leaving many school pupils baffled. And few of them have even heard of the “Prevent” policy, which is meant to stop people becoming terrorists.

These are key findings of a survey of 250 ethnic minority pupils in one of England’s most diverse cities, Peterborough.

The study also found that nearly one in three of those surveyed reported experiencing racial abuse, rising to nearly 40 per cent among Muslim pupils. Both these figures were sharply up on those found in a survey by the same research team five years ago.

The findings of the survey, and of associated discussion groups with a smaller number of pupils, were being presented to BERA today by Dr Alison Davies, of the Open University.

Government guidance, which applies to all state maintained schools in England, says that they should “promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”.

The definition first appeared in 2011 as part of the government’s “Prevent” strategy, which is designed to stop people being drawn into terrorism. Ofsted inspectors check the degree to which schools comply with their duties under Prevent.

Yet the survey in the 2015-16 academic year of 14- to 18-year-olds, all from ethnic minority backgrounds and a third of whom are Muslims, found that they were generally “uncomprehending” of the term “British Values”.

Summing up the responses of the young people in the survey and discussion groups, Dr Davies’s paper says: “Over half were silent, or stated ‘don’t know what you mean’ to the survey question asking for their ideas about British Values.

“The remainder offered popular icons such as ‘fish and chips’, ‘drinking tea’ and ‘celebrating the Queen’s birthday’ (which several of the schools had done at the time of the survey).”

Democracy, one of the listed British Values, was seen by the pupils as a system of government, rather than as a value, while several Muslim pupils pointed out that the “rule of law” was also a principle of Islam.

Some pupils, said the paper, expressed irony when asked what “British Values” meant, responding: “Pick on someone different to you”; and “We need to get rid of these immigrants, they’re taking our jobs”.

If the pupils were generally baffled by the concept of “British values”, they “understood Islamic values, Christian values, and humanitarian values very well and demonstrated these eloquently in response to questions such as ‘how to improve community relations’,” says the paper. Pupils said they wanted to respect and help pupils from other backgrounds.

The concept of “tolerance” within the “British values” definition received short shrift in particular, with pupils generally suggesting they did not want merely to be “tolerated” and to “tolerate” others, but for relationships to be based on respect and understanding.

Only 13 per cent had even heard of the Prevent strategy, with one young man saying: “The government is…putting money into something the youth doesn’t know about – it’s useless.” Others thought it would be counter-productive, including alienating young Muslims from their teachers. However, pupils generally supported its aims in reducing radicalisation.

A total of 31 per cent of survey respondents said they personally experienced racial abuse, rising to 39 per cent of Muslim pupils. “Both figures represent a sharp increase on 5 years ago,” says the paper.

“Most describe the abuse as verbal – being called ‘terrorist’ was frequently recounted in discussion, although 5 % also recorded instance of physical abuse.”

However, the survey’s respondents generally saw Peterborough’s “super-diversity” – 30 per cent of people in the city identified themselves in the 2011 census as from ethnic minority backgrounds – as an asset, the researchers found. Some 55 per cent of respondents reported positive factors such as learning about different faiths and cultures.

The young people wanted more to be done to counter negative stereotypes, especially of Muslim people.

The paper concludes: “Community cohesion [the study’s participants] argue, can be built through organised events that bring young people together in a common activity such as inter-faith festivals or sporting tournaments.

“From their own experience of increased Islamophobia and racism, they called for better-informed teaching about Islam, in schools and in the media, to counter the assumed link between Islam and terrorism.

“Crucially, they do not want merely to be ‘tolerated’, nor to ‘tolerate’ others. Beyond tolerance, for these young Muslims, lies respect, and beyond respect lies mutual understanding. They want to engage in a dialogue with others of different beliefs in their classrooms and neighbourhood, so that together they may build a stronger city.”

“Beyond Tolerance: Young British Muslims discuss ways to build community cohesion in their city, and the barriers they experience,” is being presented to BERA by Dr Alison Davies, of the Open University, on Wednesday, September 14th.


Further information from:

Warwick Mansell

BERA annual conference press officer

07813 204245


Notes for editors:

1 The study was conducted in partnership with Peterborough Racial Equality Council.

2 The annual conference of the British Educational Research Association is being held at the University of Leeds from Tuesday, September 13th to Thursday, September 15th. More than 500 research papers will be presented during the course of the conference.